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Needle in a Haystack: Finding the Leaders for Specialized Heavy Industrial Contractors in light of changing regulatory forces

by Shaun A. Sipe, PE (SVP of Human Capital) and Gene Kaercher, Ph.D. (Director of Safety and Quality)

In the changing world of governmental regulations and industrial standards, specifically OSHA 1926 Subpart CC and ASME B30.5, the skill requirements for Field Leaders are more demanding than ever before. Moreover, the construction industry is facing the important reality that the Field Leaders with the most experience and the highest skill levels are preparing to leave the workforce in large numbers due to retirement. Coupled together, it would appear the coming crisis of lack of people seems to have already arrived. Aggravating the difficulty of meeting the need is the recent trend that young talent is not currently positioned to fill the voids, choosing other career paths than the historic crafts. A recent article cast light on the growing void:

“Testifying before the U.S. Senate last year, Mike Rowe – the rugged host of television’s Dirty Jobs – said nearly a half million trade jobs are out there for the taking across the United Sates. That sets up a huge dichotomy in the struggling economy: People can’t find jobs, and yet, good jobs can’t find qualified people… We’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it… Many ‘baby boomer’ tradesmen are getting set to hang up their tools, and not enough young people are stepping into these trades to replace them.” (WORLD, April 7, 2012)

How will the next generation of Field Leaders be identified and how can we get the pipeline moving to begin “cranking them out” in order to meet the growing demand? As a specialty contractor to Heavy Industrial facilities (Nuclear Power, Refining, Petro-Chemical, Wind Energy, etc.), Barnhart, a Heavy Lift and Heavy Hauling solutions provider, is acutely aware of the missing leaders for our part of the construction world. The good news is that we know what we are looking for. The Field Leaders who make sense to us look like this:

  1. They must be able to think and do
  2. They must be able to teach and replicate
  3. They must be driven to serve
  4. They must be inclined to stay

By thinking and doing, we mean that the next generation of Field Leaders must not only be experts in methods, equipment, and process, but must also be critical thinkers able to assess risks associated with multiple variables while effectively communicating efficient plans for success. Success is defined as profitable results, with high expectations for safety, and a delighted customer on the other end of the work. These are tall orders, but cannot be compromised in any of the three areas. By teaching and replicating, what is meant is a focus on mentoring and transferring knowledge without the misunderstanding that replication signals replacement. When Field Leaders struggle to share their experience due to fear of losing their job, the toxic outcome is what we are facing in the labor force today; experience leaving the work force with few successors. By serving, Barnhart is referring to our chosen leadership model. Servant Leadership seeks to work for the success of others and not simply focusing on individual performance. Finally, by staying, we mean that fulfillment in the work of our hands, passion for the work we do, and recognition for skillful performance should lead to long-term retention which is the key for strong people development.

But knowing what you want is far less difficult than knowing how to find them. “How” to find such candidates is a process. At Barnhart we have several pipelines of people being developed simultaneously. In each case, we have had to become more deliberate in determining the attributes for each role, utilizing practical assessments to separate the real jewels from the shiny substitutes, and then ensure continued growth to make room for more developmental slots on the organizational chart. Each one of these steps is worthy of their own treatment and cannot be addressed in a short blog. Nevertheless, the point is that a one pipeline does not make sense in my experience.

More needs to be said, and a webinar on the topic is in the works as a way to continue the conversation with many who share the same concerns. But let the conversation continue, and let the work flow. The marketplace has always seemed to move us (sometimes painfully) towards the best solutions. In the meantime, Jim Collins is ringing in my ears; “The right people are any organization’s most important asset” (Good to Great). I think we are going to miss the days when shop classes were full of eager tactile learners who looked forward to building things. Maybe one long term step is to open our home shops up to the neighborhood kids and re-introduce them to the fulfilling work of design and build projects.